Week 25.21: Spacing out

  • I noticed once again that my AirPods Max battery was draining faster than normal while not in use. Coupled with intermittent stuttering/connections issues, I decided to call it a hardware fault and contact Apple support for a replacement. One came via courier within two days and I am now listening problem free.
  • After several months of distracted 10-minute reading sessions, I finally finished Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age in one concerted go. I read Snow Crash in 2019, Cryptonomicon in 2020, and this makes three. I’d really like to just chain them and keep going but/because the density and brilliance of ideas in his work is staggering. If the stuff he was writing 15 years ago is just beginning to look like our future at present, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking about today. I could read one of his newer books and find out, but first, a break.
  • I decided to pick up Andy Weir’s new book, Project Hail Mary, after seeing some positive reviews, and it’s a return to the formula of a science-based, plausible, AND interesting life-threatening problem solved in the first person that worked so well in The Martian. I barely enjoyed his last book, Artemis, but I’m halfway through this now and can’t put it down. It’s about another guy in space, slightly adrift, needing to ‘science the shit out’ of a crisis.
  • I finished the Eizouken anime series on Netflix and can recommend it although it’s not so bingeable. It works well as an episode or two a week. What’s it about? A trio of high schoolers learning to produce anime. I thought it would be like Shirobako, but that one’s set in the real world of running a business, whereas this one is not grounded in reality and just works as a deconstruction cum demonstration of animation and filmmaking techniques you may not normally notice. It must have been so gratifying to work on this as an animation artist; it literally screams ‘appreciate me!’
  • Videogames: Played a bit more Persona 5 Strikers but am not really feeling it. It’s an example of the game getting in the way of the story. As a beat-em-up, it’s just not much fun especially after coming from Yakuza and Judgment. Started and finished Coffee Talk which is an indie game where you act as barista to a cast of cafe regulars and see their stories and relationships unfold. That’s it, you just make coffee and click through dialogue. A nice little afternoon killer. Went back to the Doom reboot on PS4 for a bit of mindless FPS action. That one’s an example of story getting in the way of the game.
  • Speaking of backstory in games, Mythic Quest’s second season is coming to an end on Apple TV+, and it’s a half-hour sitcom I’ve really enjoyed as a person who hates half-hour sitcoms. Both seasons play with a single flashback/world-building episode in the middle, which sounds like a bloody annoyance but the resulting achievement is art.
  • I also finished watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier which looks like a lot of tight movie money but plays out like a lump of TV fat. It’s often corny and disrespectful of the viewer’s time. But it does raise the bar for action sequences and production design. I haven’t seen Loki yet, but if it doesn’t deliver then I may just burn through the rest of The Mandalorian in fast forward and cancel our Disney+ subscription.

Meta-sabbatical observation: This was the first week where I’ve felt the days start to blend together. When we went to meet some friends on Saturday evening and someone said they’d come from somewhere other than the office, I asked, “oh did you have the day off?” thinking it was Friday. That wasn’t the first time I’d lost track of time. Perhaps I need more milestones and structure for the weekdays. I’ve started a to-do list of things to get done or try out.

Week 24.21

Went out just once for leisure purposes; we’re in partial lockdown after all. Saw an exhibition of Chinese ink paintings by Chinese-Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng.

After 35 hours of virtual oden eating and street thug harassment, I finally finished Judgment on the PS4 with most side cases solved. I usually don’t enjoy tonal inconsistency, but I can’t get enough of how the Yakuza games (I include this one) just jump from serious melodrama to comic absurdity. You can be searching a murder scene for clues but also follow the sound of mewing to find hidden cats for bonus points. Some PI cases have you spying on suspected criminals, while others have you hanging expensive lingerie up on your roof to bait a local panty thief (who uses a drone). I can’t wait to revisit these characters in the sequel later this September.

Also finished watching all 24 episodes of Steins;gate 0 at 1.25x speed. I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more had I remembered the ending of the first series a bit better (it’s been a decade). So the ending of this was an anticlimax because I didn’t follow how the big problem was being solved — tying up time travel loose ends is more work than usual.

We finally saw our last remaining episode of Izakaya Bottakuri on Netflix. It’s a rather corny and harmless Japanese drama about two sisters who run a little izakaya they inherited from their parents. Most episodes involve a regular customer’s backstory and some closeups of food being fried. The one noteworthy thing about the show is how every episode has a character describe their beverage’s selling points in great detail: usually a domestic craft beer, or regional sake made with some special process. After the end credits, the lead actress comes back to hold up the bottle and talk about tonight’s alcohol selection. It’s blatant content marketing, but I am quite alright with the idea of a TV show bankrolled by booze companies!

I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s new film, Wrath of Man, which stars Jason Statham in the kind of badass role he’s perfected over god knows how many similar outings. But it’s probably one of his best. I appreciate what Ritchie brings to what would otherwise by a straightforward heist and revenge story: heaps of style and chronology jumping for the hell of it.

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Of course, it was also WWDC week. No new hardware products, but the curtain came back for iOS 15 and while there aren’t any big, must-have features to look forward to, some very nice quality of life upgrades all around. I’m especially looking forward to quicker on-device Siri, tags in Notes, and more intelligence in Photos. iPadOS could have gone further and pushed the new M1 chips with pro-level apps or even a goddamn calculator, but all we got were the long-awaited cleanup of the multitasking interaction model and free placement of last year’s widgets, plus everything else new on the iPhone side.

I may be remembering things wrong, but there wasn’t any news on the Apple TV apart from spatial audio support, and watchOS is just grinding out more of the same, expansion pack style, with new workout and mindful activity types.

Spatial audio is quite a big deal, though. I recently watched some Dolby Atmos enabled videos content on my new iPad with AirPods, and it really works. With the launch of Atmos music tracks on Apple Music this week, I spent some time listening to old and new tracks to put it through its paces. I tend to agree with everyone who’s observed that the rock music examples are generally terrible, and the effect works best on jazz and classical music — where even studio cuts usually strive to reproduce the context of a live performance. The new spatial remixes of vintage jazz records have more atmosphere and you can point around you to where each player seems to be seated. Perhaps it’s like colorizing old photos, gimmicky and impure to some, but bringing them closer in space and time nonetheless. I think the technology is a positive development.

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Next week: More reading. Wanna crush your Goodreads challenge? The New York Times Book Review has published a list of recommendations. I’ll be trying some of them out soon.

Week 23.21: Eternal Judgment, visiting the mall of westtown, and surviving a fridge failure

  • I returned to the office on Monday to get some things out of my locker (you know a jar of Branston pickle is old when it’s never been opened but manages to make the whole cupboard smell of it), which was my first time back in a couple of months now. With the “Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)” order still in effect, it was a ghost town.
  • The first half of the week was spent watching Steins;gate 0, the 2018 sequel to regular ol’ Steins;gate from 2011 — a SF anime series about degenerate outcasts in Akihabara who figure out a form of time travel and universe splitting. Most of this was done hunched over my 11” iPad Pro, which made me wish all over again that I’d sprung for the 13” model last month. I stopped midway through the 24 episodes and will probably finish them next week.
  • Everyone’s talking about Mare of Easttown, so we watched all seven episodes. I find stories set in small towns claustrophobic and hellish. Everyone is already miserable, and the murders only make it worse. The show is pretty good anyway, but I won’t be spending a minute thinking about it now that it’s over.
  • Playing Judgment on the PS4 consumed about 20 of the remaining hours and I don’t know if I’m even halfway through the story. It’s excellent fun, and well worth the S$22 it costs now. In the Yakuza series, you often visit hostess clubs and have to pick the right things to say to get the girls to like you. As a spin-off of that series, Judgment has a brilliant side-mission where you control one of the main character’s female associates, and have to go undercover as a hostess during an investigation. It works with you having to pick the right things to say to the men to get them to buy more bottles and open up.
  • Perhaps related to this video game binge: I had a violent dream where I was being attacked by a homeless person (this happens in Judgment a fair few times) and actually woke up kicking in real life, with an elevated heart rate. This has never happened before as far as I can remember!
  • I read another 20% of The Diamond Age, and wondered why I don’t spend all my time reading instead of playing repetitive open-world games. Maybe it’s the heat of the afternoon sun, maybe it’s the equivalent of going to a buffet when deathly hungry and stuffing your face with all the carby and unhealthy stuff first. I’ll chew slowly when I’m less starved.
  • Our refrigerator also stopped working mid-week, which was a great source of stress for 24 hours. Although I barely use the fridge at all most of the time, it seemed to cast an outsized pall over everything in my life. I was miserable at the thought of having to get a new one and deal with everything around it. Happily, it turned out to be a problem with the mains which was sorted out quickly.
  • When I used to have a regular commute, I would sometimes take a route that brought me to a nearby neighborhood mall with an MRT station attached. It’s nothing special, has a few clothing stores, a videogame store that isn’t cheaper than just buying digital, restaurants, and a library. Since Covid, I haven’t had any occasion to visit.
  • This week, I was sent a thoughtful gift which was delivered to some self-service lockers at the mall, so I took a trip down to see what I was missing. Hmm, that makes two locker visits this week. And two ghost town visits too, given how bereft of commercial activity most stores looked. I walked around for maybe 20 minutes, trying to find something I actually wanted. I don’t think most of these physical stores have any reason to exist now, sadly. Even if I wanted to buy any of it, apart from a new TV or fridge that would make sense to check out in person, I’d probably be better off online.

Week 15.21

Changing where you cut your hair is often a big deal; people will patronize the same place for years or even decades. When I started at my first job, I discovered a little salon in the same building which was very convenient — I see getting a trim as a bit of boring maintenance that can’t be avoided. It had seats for six to eight people at a time, but only one middle-aged proprietor who would actually cut hair — his wife assisted at the till and sometimes with washing and other procedures. Making conversation with the older ladies who came in for perms and dyes seemed to be part of her portfolio. So, it was effectively a small solo operation that had room to expand but no interest in doing it.

I continued to go there for years (close to a decade?!) even after I left the company, when going down after office hours became more inconvenient. As these things sometimes go, we had many conversations over the years and I learnt a bit about the couple’s lives, their family, and so on. It strikes me that these hair-related relationships are unique amongst the commercial/service interactions in our lives. You don’t know what your doctor got up to on vacation, say.

One evening in 2015, I went down to discover the store shut and called to find out if anything was up. Turns out they just decided to close early that day and do something else. Had I called to make an appointment, that could have been avoided, but I never did it because you were liable to turn up and find someone in the seat anyway, and you’d have to wait 45 minutes (he liked to take his time).

Betrayed, I walked the streets and came upon another place, which marked the beginning of another multi-year relationship. Another friend who still goes to the same place tried to guilt trip me about the switch, but I didn’t feel to blame at all because not staying open during opening hours effectively broke our contract.

The new place was a more regular sort of salon: multiple seats, multiple stylists. I walked in and was assigned someone who I had a good feeling about right away. This guy was younger, normally served much more stylish clientele than the likes of me, and on the whole it was a more modern and luxurious experience — someone would bring you coffee! One time, I went down without an appointment as was my custom and was served by another stylist. He did an awful job, and so I got into the habit of making appointments.

This worked out until COVID hit and we went into lockdown. After the first couple of months staying in, I bought a pair of clippers, watched a YouTube video, and tried trimming my own hair at home. I wasn’t going out, so what did I care if I made mistakes and got a lumpy haircut? I just didn’t want my ears to get warm so I was doing the back and sides with the comb attachment. When the rest of it got too long, lockdown was just easing up and I could get someone else to do it. But visiting the salon in town would be too much travel each way now that it wasn’t on the way home from work.

What I ended up doing was visiting the traditional men’s barbershop in my neighborhood, which cost $10 instead of $50, and was an experience virtually unchanged in 30 years. I used to be brought to similar places as a kid, just an uncomplicated, artless buzzing and a few quick snips. The fluorescent lighting, smell of talcum powder, cracked leather seats, explosive countertop clutter, disposable razor blades for the shaving of sideburns… it wasn’t the same as being served a coffee and having your head massaged, but it got the job done. Did it look very good? No, but neither did I anyway, and I was still mostly working from home and not going anywhere much.

That was the past 9 months or so. I wasn’t really satisfied with the idea of getting mediocre uneven haircuts from shaky hands for the rest of my life, but the money I was saving helped, and it was alright as long as I didn’t look in the mirror? Going back to a centrally located place for a haircut just seemed out of the question though, kinda like going back to an office five days a week is preposterous now.

So long story short-ish, this week I visited the barbershop on what must have been their day off, and so had the opportunity to try the other hair salon in the neighborhood, which I never had occasion to pass in the day when they’re open. I feel somewhat like how it felt back in 2015: like I’ve leapt forward and found the light. It was the first proper haircut I’ve gotten in the past year, in a clean, properly air-conditioned place, with professionals who know what they’re doing, and a price acceptably midway between downtown extravagance and the bare minimum. I think this may be the next chapter as long as we don’t move away.

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In other exciting neighborhood discovery news, my weekday lunch options have increased. A struggling (not great) Korean stall in the nearby kopitiam closed down, and the space was taken over by a sort of Japanese joint offering cheap donburi like oyakodon, gyudon, and katsudon, with unhealthy but tasty mentaiko mayonnaise and cheese toppings to make up for whatever they lack in authenticity. This change apparently happened a couple of months ago, but I never noticed while walking by because their signboard design looks similar to the Korean one’s from afar.

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Still reading The Diamond Age from last week, and have been grinding through about 200 levels of Tiny Crossword+ on Apple Arcade. The puzzles are exceedingly simple, and I’m hoping the boards will get larger and more difficult soon, or else I’ll start on something else.

Week 14.21

  • We had some massive storms this week, he said interestingly. And apart from a lunch out with my parents where my lack of dialect reading ability led to me confusing a fish noodle order with the beef noodles we really wanted, it’s been mostly a passive (media consumption) week outside of work.
  • Oh, and I changed this blog’s theme, for those of you reading outside of the RSS feed.
  • I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which has been on my Goodreads shelf since 2017. It took the better half of a day this long weekend, and I mostly could have done without it. Minor spoiler alert. I found it too derivative of many other post-apocalyptic survival stories, with the added belief-suspending flaw of having most characters improbably linked. There’s even a significant portion devoted to survivors camped in an airport, which reminded me too much of Douglas Coupland’s Player One which I read last year and also rated two stars to.
  • As a palate cleanser, I’ve just started Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and I already have no fucking idea what I’ve gotten myself into. Which is to say I’m loving it.
  • Apple Arcade took a big leap forward and this new content direction feels like the next step in Arcade’s evolution (or the last, if you’re cynical and think that Apple would retire something that wasn’t performing — they’d cancel a HomePod but would they cancel a service?)
  • I spent about an hour with FANTASIAN, the new game from both the creator and composer of Final Fantasy, which is a huge coup for an Apple exclusive. It feels on brand as hell for them, so I don’t expect to see it through to the end (never have), although it’s quite beautiful. We also played SongPop Party for awhile, and it’s good fun. I’m also looking forward to trying the new Star Trek game, and Platinum’s World of Demons, which was cancelled in beta years ago and then secretly revived for Apple Arcade. Oh, and Taiko no Tatsujin! And CLAP HANZ GOLF! And The Oregon Trail remake! There’s just so much.
  • While checking out one of the larger streaming service’s overseas catalog via ah… VPN, we discovered Gogglebox, a UK reality show where you watch people watching TV. It’s brilliant. On one hand, it condenses an entire week of British news, drama, and game show programming into an hour-long highlights reel of just the best bits. On the other, you get entertaining commentary from groups of friends and family sitting in their own living rooms — entertaining on account of their reactions (sarcasm, ignorance, delight, horror) and their individual relationships and stories which slowly become apparent to the viewer. It’s like the Terrace House panel, but for regular TV, and I can’t get enough.
  • Two albums on rotation this week:
  • The Shave Experiment EP by Q is falsetto-laden, lofi R&B with lots of electric guitar and analog effects, which is hit and miss for me most times; I can’t stand some Steve Lacey, but kinda liked Omar Apollo, etc. Q’s take on it seems to be right in the sweet spot for me.
  • Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra defies categorization. It’s a somewhat-minimal piece of ambient or jazz music lasting 46 minutes, in 9 movements, centered around a saxophone, with occasional strings and other sounds, held together by one single gentle piano riff that just repeats throughout the whole thing like a mindworm.

Week 13.21

It was a four-day work week but things were so hectic it didn’t feel like one at all. We took Monday off and went to check out Carne, the new-in-town burger joint that’s been getting the hype treatment on account of its ties to a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Regretfully, it was only good and not great. Maybe because we had the new chimichurri burger exclusive to Singapore, which didn’t really leave the beef any room to impress. Maybe they’re still sorting out kinks. Maybe I’m a pleb. The disappointment reminded me of how everyone else loved Omakase Burger but I just couldn’t understand why. I’ll give them another chance many months from now.

Afterwards, with the afternoon wide open, we decided to visit the zoo and use our “Singapore ReDiscovers” vouchers — S$100 government stimulus checks aimed at boosting domestic tourism. It had been a long while since I last visited, and the layout resembled nothing in memory. We spent about three hours wandering about in very sunny, humid conditions, but it was a pretty relaxing change from the everyday (animal captivity notwithstanding). On reflection, it was also a welcome break from the usual weekday routine of staring at screens. Maybe that’s the role overseas holidays really played, back when they could be taken: looking at new things, in the absence of screens, when one would normally be at work. Do this more!

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We ended the week getting a beer by the Singapore River, which was a lot quieter than it used to be. Brewerkz, for one, is doing a quarter of the business it would have on a Sunday evening in the past, if not less. Which was unexpected; many restaurants and bars in town look to be doing very well these days. Maybe the riverside area relied too much on expats, and some of them have gone home.

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I’m revisiting the records of Duke Ellington and Lester Young, two musicians I had on heavy rotation in my teens and 20s and then hardly played in recent times. I started with pretty mellow late night jazz tastes and then found comfort in frenetic discordance. That seems like such a long time ago, and putting them on now has that retro-transportative quality you sometimes get with music or scents if you’re lucky. It’s also fantastic that I am able to hear them in much higher quality today than I did back when a pair of PC speakers was what I played everything on.

Oh, remember those integrated “mini hi-fis” you would buy at the department store? I just looked some up and they’re still a thing! Sony makes a few, ranging from garish LED-equipped ones they must think appeal to the teens who grew up on Michael Bay’s Transformers, to sleeker units that might be silver-painted plastic if they’re anything like what I grew up with. But hey, I’d be delighted if you can get a good sounding system at those prices. For about the same price as Sonos units, these support Bluetooth/AirPlay with the added benefit of CD/DVD playback that one of Sony’s copywriters has absolutely no illusions about.

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I mostly read Saifedean Ammous’s The Bitcoin Standard in a day, with a bit of skimming. It’s a 10-chapter book that doesn’t get into Bitcoin until about Chapter 8, which is not the structure I would have chosen, but the long set-up is a pretty good primer on money and the history of gold as a currency.

Not having paid any attention during my economics classes (I failed), there were some ideas here I found interesting. Namely the connections between having a stable, global monetary standard and people having longer time horizons (or lower time preferences, as they’re called here) with which to approach their work and lives. He links the economic stability of the gold standard era to people investing in longer-term bets, which resulted in some of human history’s most significant advances in art and science, higher functioning family units, and even the preservation of world peace (up until WWI). It’s probably obvious to anyone who’s studied it, but I’d never considered the systemic effects of pegging a few currencies to a precious metal that way before.

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I read a tweet that said it’s not working hard that causes burnout. Teams can apparently burn out working normal hours on things that don’t feel worthwhile. I wonder if there’s a leisure equivalent of burn out, when you realize your hobbies are a waste of time. What happens then?